When it came to charcuterie, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston started out small scale. “I started like every other chef, with just a little wine fridge,” he recalls. “My early education was a lot of reading, but it’s the oldest form of preservation in the world — just add salt and let it sit — so I figured I could pull it off.”
Shepherd upped his cure game big-time when he found a used medical blood-stabilizing unit at an auction: “It had a heater and a humidifier, so we were off to the races.” When he first opened Underbelly in early 2012, he finally built out an entire room for his charcuterie experiments. “It was pretty damned on point,” boasts Shepherd, “but we still did a lot of reading and testing of the amount of meat we could work with, the temperature, the humidity and the airflow. We threw away a lot of shit.”
The dedicated curing room was a game changer for Underbelly’s operations. Only Shepherd and his longtime butcher, Javier Salvador, are allowed to touch the whole animals that come in the door, and together the pair break down pigs and cows into middle-of-the plate portions and trimming for their charcuterie efforts. “Javier and I have worked together for 17 years, and he knows my thought process now. It’s like second nature.”
“We’re always rotating different meats and preparations through the room, and one day we had a chance to do a buffalo. We thought, ‘A buffalo? F— yeah!'”
But still, Shepherd has to continually make business decisions about his curing program. “It’s real estate. As a business owner you have to justify everything. A hanging ham takes up nine square feet, so I have to charge $15 an ounce for prosciutto to pay for the space, time and effort. Cost and space-wise it’s probably not worth it, but flavor-wise? Hell yeah!”
Underbelly’s butcher boys revel in their opportunities to experiment in the cure room. “We’re always rotating different meats and preparations through the room, and one day we had a chance to do a buffalo. We thought, ‘A buffalo? Fuck yeah! Let’s put a buffalo in that thing!’ So we bought a half of a buffalo and cured the whole damn thing. It was outrageous!”
When they aren’t carving up a bison, Shepherd and Salvador concentrate on the peanut-fed Large Black hogs and whole cows that they receive periodically. The beef cattle is cut into rib eyes, strips, sirloins and flat irons for dinner dishes and flank steaks that show up on the lunch menu. Shanks are slow-cooked and served family style to tables full of very happy families. Brisket and collar are smoked, and the short ribs get a sear in more traditional Texas presentations.
After all that processing, there’s not much beef left to grind into burgers, so Shepherd doesn’t. Instead, he challenges his kitchen to come up with new uses for the leftovers. His primary beef charcuterie presentation is in the form of bresaola, but instead of just leaning on the traditional Italian flavor profile of this eye of round cut, Shepherd introduces flavors reminiscent of a pho, since, after all, that particular cut of beef is often served in the Vietnamese broth anyway.
The willingness to think outside the usual flavor box is a creative motivation for Shepherd as he plans his ever-changing charcuterie boards. “We try to have four or five meats on the board at a time,” Shepherd relates. “We always want to have something new and fresh all the time, not just cured meats. I think it asks a lot more of your taste buds in the delicacy and the subtleties.”
An Underbelly charcuterie platter reflects the international flavors of modern-day Houston. Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Mexican influences are all over the board, literally. Lardo is cured with Korean gochujang, Vietnamese sausages like cha lua wrapped in banana leaves rest next to old-school pepperoni, and Shepherd even has a country ham cured with Red Boat fish-sauce salt that he’s waiting a year on to see if it turns out to be worth a damn.
Shepherd is especially proud of how his food reflects 21st-century Houston, and he keeps an eye out for kindred souls. “Justin Cherry at Husk in Charleston is doing some really cool stuff. He’s also demonstrating a sense of place, just a different place. It’s true to where they are, and that’s what I want to keep doing here at Underbelly. I’m going for a sense of place and time.”